This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Westworld.
In 2013, a widely cited study published in Science suggested that reading literature increases a person ability to understand other peoples’ emotions. In 2016, another study seemed to debunk it, finding the original study’s results irreplicable and its resulting media coverage way too broad. “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers,” went The Atlantic’s headline from last week about the reversal.
It might seem laughable in the first place for anyone to think literature bestows superpowers. But that’s actually one of the more abiding beliefs of popular culture, and the question of whether stories improve the soul and mind—and better humanity more broadly—remains eternally in dispute. It’s a question that HBO’s Westworld has riffed on for 10 episodes, with the popular drama’s finale last night suggesting a cynical take on the social value of storytelling.
The final episode, “The Bicameral Mind,” was a lurid one, involving severed limbs and sexual humiliation and a bloody ambush by the “hosts” of the show’s immersive cowboy theme park against their human masters. But just before the climactic revolt, Robert Ford, the venerable park architect played by Anthony Hopkins, laid out his original idealistic vision for the place. “I’ve always loved a good story,” he began. “I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”